So many of the ideas about the media that theoreticians talk about, revolve around Marxism. Marxism revolves around Karl Marx's critique of capitalism. 'Capitalism' is a flavour of Political Economy. See Key Concepts: Ideologies for some context.
At the heart of Marx's political economy lies the idea of value.
Marx believed that the base determined the superstructure - i.e. the way we operate ecomonically determines the values that are propagated in our society, in the interest of those economic operations.
Marx initially distinguishes between two types of value: use-value and exchange-value
the utility of a commodity - that is how it fulfills human needs:
a pen has use-value because we write with it;
Marx's examples are linen and coats:
linen has use-value because it can be made into clothing;
a coat has use-value because it can be worn to fend off cold and allow us to present ourselves in public with decorum.
can at first glance be thought of in terms of price,
although Marx has a few things to say about exchange-value before it becomes equated with price.
Exchange-value is the relationship of value:
20 yards of linen has the same exchange-value as 1 or 2 coats, rather than 5 or 10 coats.
Not just because of the amount of linen required to tailor a coat, but the fact that labour is expended in manufacturing linen and tailoring coats.
Similarly, 1 tonne of gold has a greater exchange value than 1 tonne of iron - because more labour must be expended in mining gold than iron because of gold's relative scarcity.
Exchange-value, then, is created by the expenditure of labour.
In theory there should be no clear reason under these circumstances for one person to acquire more power in exchange-value (ie acquire more commodities, have greater wealth) than any other person, except for the amount of labour they expend.
In theory, those who work most, become the most wealthy.
Of course, in practice, Marx noted that the reverse was true, and it is the translation of labour to money - the transition from labour-value to monetary value - that creates the inequalities.
If a man sells a commodity for a price and generates a profit - where has this profit come from?
This profit, or surplus-value is at the heart of the capitalist economy, and it essentially boils down to middle-men taking a slice. [This is why brokers are rich.] Middle-men can only take a slice because they own the 'means of production' (the factories, the land), and they can only own things because capitalist systems are based on the primacy of private ownership and property. As Joseph Proudhon said, "Property is Theft".
If the exchange-value of a commodity is generated by the labour in its production, but the monetary value realised is greater than the labour-value, then there is a natural imperative which arises to ensure that more and more commodities are made for less and less cost.
This imperative gives rise to separate classes - the bourgoisie and the proletariat, the employers and the employed.
The employers seek greater surplusses and exploit the employed who labour more and more for less and less of the pie.
The Economy Gives Rise to Ideology
The Marxist discourse, and ideas about political economy, then, stem from Marx's analysis of how the exploitation of working classes arises. Of course, there are many other aspects to Marx's ideas of political economy, but we don't need to go into all of them to see the centrality of these concepts of value.
By extension we can also see why the 'values' of a society might be very useful to vested interests:
values such as:
value for money,
having a work-ethic,
a flexible workforce (a euphemism for a 'sackable workforce')
get on yer bike and get a job.
The Division of Labour and Alienation
Marx's emphasis is on the worker, the proletarian.
We said that the more productive labour becomes, the less value it has - Marx calls this a moral inversion
In his essay, Estranged Labour, he describes this as alienation, isolation, and estrangement. He argues that the consequence of this is that:
"man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions - eating, drinking procreating, or at most in his dwelling and dressing-up, etc; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal."
In the same essay, Marx argues that the worker becomes the 'object' - he is objectified, in fact, turned into a commodity, become sub-human.
From his "Communist Manifesto",
"These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market."
The capitalist system objectifies a whole class of society and turns their existence into a commodity to be bought and sold.
This is a kind of slavery, whence the famous phrase, "the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains".
We might like at this point to reflect that what enables barbarous acts to be committed in a society is the objectification of human beings, whether they be Jews in Nazi Germany or Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Marxism != Communism
We should not take Marxism and Communism to mean the same thing.
Marx's idea of communism sprang from the idea that a society could operate through shared ownership: instead of some individuals accruing capital through surplus-value, all individuals share in the products of the labour of society as a whole.
Of course, everyone would still need to expend labour in order for the needs of the society to be met, but the labour would be equitable, and the products shared:
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
You have to go a long way from these ideas to explain the nature of totalitarian regimes such as that that arose in Communist Russia under 'Uncle Joe' Stalin.
McLellan, D. (ed.), 1977. Karl Marx: Selected Writings Oxford: Oxford University Press
Marx, K., 1954. Capital, London: Lawrence & Wishart
Engels, F. & Marx, K., 2004. The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin
This post was brought to you by Joe - reading Marx, so you don't have to. :)